Where is the Dalit music?

Published: May 17, 2016 - 13:58 Updated: May 17, 2016 - 18:12

We heard Dub Sharma, Sylvie and the songs of resistance as the ‘Jai Bhim- Lal Salaam’ movement picked up momentum, but the music of the Dalits was conspicuous by its absence. Why has it not reached the ears of the mainstream yet? Hardnews asks Hemant and Tarannum Bauddh in the first instalment of a series

Abeer Kapoor & Dhruba Basu Delhi 

The spring of 2016 has been a tumultuous one. Perhaps this is in a sense only appropriate. Spring is, after all, a season of renewal. The student movements of February and March bore the promise of spring, manifest in the resilience of the youth from around the country who rose up in solidarity with Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar, manifest in the determined and dauntless leadership of Shehla Rashid Shora and the convergence of the blue and red banners on the streets of the national capital; manifest most noticeably in the combining of the ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Lal Salaam’ slogans into one cheer. 

However, there has been something missing from the agitations that erupted in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and spilled over onto the front pages of our papers and the prime time ‘debates’ and visuals of our news channels. Ironically, it is an instance of musical innovation that served to bring the absence to light, namely, ‘Azadi’, the catchy track by Chandigarh-based electronic musician Dub Sharma that sampled a speech by Kanhaiya Kumar and went viral. While the song may not be considered groundbreaking by those who are well-versed in the technical intricacies of electronic composition and mixing, its achievement lies more in showing us how the zeitgeist of the times can be captured in music.

‘Azadi’ is the most popular but not the only song of the movement. Choral ‘songs of resistance’ were sung by students during the open-air public lectures in JNU, which saw various scholars and luminaries from the social sciences exploring the discourse being constructed by the government and university administrations around ideas of nationalism and sedition. “We are JNU”, an acoustic ode to freedom and resilience by Sylvie Heir, a German student at JNU, also grabbed headlines. 

One limitation of these songs is that, as songs of solidarity, they are unlikely to transcend the circumstances of their birth and have an impact on the visibility or creativity of the country’s political counterculture. But the real question they call attention to is bigger than that: where are the songs of the Dalits? The visual landscape of the movement is dominated by the image of Vemula. His face adorns the posters, placards and banners that are raised at rallies and protests, symbolising the demand to recognise and redress the institutional apathy and mistreatment that continue to characterise the Dalit experience today. And yet, it was the music of JNU that found its way into the public consciousness, not the music of the Dalits.

It is strange this is so, because Dalit music is very much alive. In conversation with Hardnews, Ashok Das, the editor of Dalit Dastak, draws a succinct map. “The music of Dalits is very different from that of the Left, who have a longer history of protest, slogans and songs. This is changing little by little. A vibrant music scene is emerging. There are songs of protest that the Dalit sings at political rallies, there are those they sing as part of their folk traditions, and finally there is the direction that the youth is taking.”

Tarannum Bauddh is one such youngster in Delhi, a hugely popular artiste in the Ambedkarite Buddhist and SC/ST circuit across north India. The daughter of a member of Kanshi Ram’s Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF), she has been involved in the ‘movement’, by which she means spreading awareness and building solidarity among Dalits, since the age of three and claims a truly impressive performance pedigree, having been trained in kathak under no less a personage than Pandit Birju Maharaj. She and her onstage partner in song, Hemant Bauddh, were both students of music at Delhi University. Hemant, although an equally recognisable face today, admits to having been a late bloomer. An Indian Idol participant in 2007, he was brought into the fold while in college by his great-uncle, who told him about Tarannum and got him involved in singing about Dalit issues.

Today both of them are much sought after at public events and have released a number of albums of what may be described as borderline devotional music in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar, as is evident from album titles like Jai Ho Bhim Mahan and Jai Bhim Lage Jab Nara, their most recent release. It is music that is heavy on driving beats and rising, roaring, perhaps Bollywood-inspired melodies. One gets the sense that a lot, maybe too much, is happening in each track, a complicated alliance between the sounds of modern synthesisers and the hortatory intent that shapes their impersonal lyrics; almost the Indian experience of modernity in a capsule. In a discussion with Hardnews, Tarannum and Hemant speak with candour about the music scene that they are the faces of.  

“Artists don’t have a religion or caste,” said Tarannum, “but there is nothing higher than the truth and we are performing to build solidarity and awareness among the children, the young adults, of our society.” What this effectively means is that they do not see their music primarily as a means of livelihood but as a sociopolitical necessity. “Hamaare samaaj mein gaane ki zaroorat hai,” said Hemant. He explains that the roots of this need lay in patterns of institutional silence, as in the case of the elision of contemporary Dalit issues from NCERT textbooks. A shocking but natural consequence of this, he says, is that many Dalits of the current generation remain unaware of the history of their community’s subjugation and the significance of Ambedkar in their upliftment.

The entertainment industry is also characterised by silence on its caste composition. Hemant mentions actors and singers in Bollywood, such as Sonu Nigam and Kailash Kher, who are of Dalit origin but leave their caste identity behind to make the most of their careers. The question of why Dalit music has not made inroads into the mainstream, thus, cannot be separated from the fact that the Dalit identity is deliberately hidden from the mainstream. As of now “Dalit music cannot be commercial”, and this shows in the form of their music as well. There are stirring moments, but by and large they make do without any hooks, which are central to the ‘pop’ element
in music. 

It becomes clear that the politics of exclusion extends to the Bauddhs’ perception of the Left’s treatment of Dalits, too. When Tarannum informs us of a song dedicated to Vemula that opens Jai Bhim Lage Jab Nara, we ask her about her take on Kanhaiya and ‘Jai Bhim - Lal Salaam’. The response is immediate: “Ours is neela salaam, we are not concerned with lal salaam at all. We sympathise with other downtrodden peoples, but our problems have not been addressed in over 1,000 years. We are disappointed with political leaders and therefore do not feel that their issues, like those of Kanhaiya, can be mixed with ours. Our leaders must be our own.”

These reservations are not new. In Jai Bhim Comrade, the 2012 documentary that took 14 years to make, Anand Patwardhan tells the story of Dalit protest music, a story peopled by activists and folk singers like Vilas Ghogre, Sambhaji Bhagat, Gaddar, and the Kabir Kala Manch. It is a story of vibrant, vigorous traditions of resistance that question the state-protected status quo, but always from the margins and always under the threat of persecution, a theme explored in Chaitanya Tamhane’s 2014 Marathi drama, Court, as well. Jai Bhim Comrade also takes a long look at the chasm between the Leftist and Dalit movements in India, as reflected in its title, which evokes hopes of bridging the gap. 

Vemula was himself a disillusioned Marxist, of the opinion that Indian communists had not freed themselves of caste consciousness. Kanhaiya, in his speech on being released from prison, tried to stitch the red and blue narratives together. Yet the silence of the Dalit voice is deafening, lending credence to the notion that the co-option of ‘Jai Bhim’ dilutes their struggles. How long can the Left, claiming to represent the interests of the oppressed and disadvantaged, afford to ignore the worst-off?

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We heard Dub Sharma, Sylvie and the songs of resistance as the ‘Jai Bhim- Lal Salaam’ movement picked up momentum, but the music of the Dalits was conspicuous by its absence.

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